Facebook Founding President Sean Parker: Smart Lists Represent A Change In Philosophy

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There’s still an hour to go until Facebook’s f8 keynote kicks off, but the last two weeks have already been filled with Facebook news, including the launch of a revamped News Feed and Facebook’s real-time Ticker.

Another, slightly less prominent launch, was the introduction of Facebook’s Smart Lists. These group your friends automatically based on criteria like location and employer — and they also make it very easy to build your own custom lists, providing uncannily accurate suggestions that makes the list-building process far less tedious. They’re a big deal.

Yesterday, Facebook’s Founding President Sean Parker took to his Facebook profile to share his thoughts on the introduction of Smart Lists. Parker left the company years ago, but he obviously has a lot of insight into the way Facebook has viewed Lists in the past (not to mention a large stake in the company), so the posts are definitely worth reading — especially because he points out many of the ways they could still be improved.

Here are a collection of his relevant status updates (reprinted with permission):

Finally, a useful and well integrated list capability… The idea that a list is really a way of filtering your feed, first and foremost, is one that I’ve wanted for quite a long time.

As for lists, it’s still too painful to use. I’d like to see list-building surfaced even more prominently. The context menus that appear on hover over every username should appear instantly, without the tedious delay. When the context menu appears the list-membership dialog should be expanded by default and if the user belongs to any lists at all, these should be clearly indicated.

Even more confusingly, subscription within a given list should behave the way it sounds: as an all or nothing feature. This would make sense if subscription existed as a part of the list feature, but in Facebook’s model it’s actually two completely independent concepts. The only place where users might want to adjust the “degree” of subscription is in Facebook’s algorithmic “news feed” … but past evidence indicates that we have, in practice, no fucking idea what “more” or “less” of a given person’s updates really means.

On the topic of list building, which seems to be a hot topic at the moment. It’s not that lists are a huge breakthrough. It’s just that they represent a departure from the philosophy that Facebook has had for years… specifically the idea that users don’t want these tools, they don’t want to think, they don’t want to do anything that might be construed as work to get a better experience. When in fact this is exactly what Facebook users wanted all along — control. The ability to sort and filter their network of friends in whatever way seemed right to them, without being at the mercy of Facebook’s seemingly arbitrary black box news feed algorithms. I suspect that most users won’t get too fancy with these tools, they’ll just use them casually to sort the wheat from the chaff, building a list of of “close friends” who they actually care to follow and leaving the rest to Facebook’s cyborg intelligence. What I do think will become clear with time is that while Facebook was doing a piss poor job of making these decisions on our behalf, most users never paid it much heed until they were given a taste of the alternative in the form of a simple toolset to do the job for themselves.

I think I’ve said enough for one night… But just to be absolutely clear, lest anyone misinterpret my ranting, I’m incredibly happy with where the product is headed and this is a proud moment to be an owner and friend of the company. Regardless of whether you’re exhilarated or aggravated by the recent changes, there’s a lot more good things coming down the pipe… Looking forward to f8…”